The new engine in a local company’s towboat comes with benefits for both the business and the environment.

After 45 years of hauling commodities around the Mississippi River, the Itasca, a vessel operated by St. Paul-based Upper River Services, received a $400,000 renovation with the help of Minnesota nonprofit Environmental Initiative.

The replacement of the 65-foot towboat’s two engines and two generators with newer, greener alternatives will accomplish the equivalent of taking 16,000 cars off the road in terms of annual pollution reduction, said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services.

“That’s a number that’s staggering to me,” he said.

The upgrade will also allow the Itasca, which is used to push barges on the river, to operate at a higher horsepower and use less fuel.

“Everybody wins in this deal,” Nelson said. “We’re virtually able to move more with less. And we create less of a carbon footprint.”

The renovation was part of Environmental Initiative’s Project Green Fleet program, which provides pollution control equipment for heavy diesel vehicles to Minnesota companies at lower costs.

Participation in the program is voluntary because businesses still have to foot a bill, said Bill Droessler, a senior director at Environmental Initiative. But the nonprofit does a lot of the work for the participating companies by pulling together grant proposals for the Environmental Protection Agency and gathering supplemental funds from the private sector.

Air quality in Minnesota is good relative to other parts of the country, Droessler said, which can make it hard for the state’s projects to win the funds from the EPA. Some of the money for the Itasca’s upgrade came from the federal agency and other private partners, and Upper River Services covered the rest.

“That’s one of the reasons these kind of champions and pioneers in the industry are so important,” Droessler said.

Though Minnesota may be in a better spot than some when it comes to the environment — no counties violate any federal air quality standards, for instance — Droessler said many improvements can still be made.

“We can’t become complacent with it,” he said. “There’s still massive benefits from doing these kinds of emission reduction projects.”

Project Green Fleet focuses on adding eco-friendly engines to all kinds of heavy-duty vehicles, like construction equipment, cranes and locomotives. The Itasca is the second Upper River Services towboat that’s been remodeled, said Nelson, who hopes to add more of his vessels to the list in coming years.

When he saw the Itasca out on the river Monday morning, Nelson couldn’t see any emissions coming out of the boat. “It was burning that cleanly,” he said.